Wednesday, 16 January 2019

In Relation: Laura & Harold Knight

Harold Knight, Laura Johnson aged 14,1891 (RA)

When she died in 1970, at the age of ninety-two, Dame Laura Knight RA was the epitome of a national treasure – an establishment figure whose art was reassuringly approachable and unthreatening. It was hard to imagine her upsetting the Royal Academy or having work dismissed as ‘vulgar’, yet Knight’s long battle to express herself freely as an artist, on the same terms as her male contemporaries, did involve challenging the status quo and offending its guardians. Her husband Harold stood beside her throughout.

The couple met in 1890, at the Nottingham Government School of Design. Laura Johnson was thirteen. Her father had abandoned the family when she was young, leaving the family in dire financial straits, but her mother taught part-time at the school and secured her a place as an ‘artisan student’, free of charge. On arrival Laura was entranced by the seventeen year-old Harold Knight, an architect’s son and the school’s star pupil. Laura herself was a live wire, bold and unconventional, criticized by other women for her heavy-handed – mannish, as they saw it – approach to drawing. A year later Harold painted her portrait.

‘While he was painting it,’ Laura later wrote, ‘I first got a hint that I meant as much to him as he to me.’

As their friendship blossomed it was underpinned by the shared conviction that their lives should be devoted to art. Success as a portrait painter came quickly to Harold, enabling them to marry in 1903, although it was Laura who proposed. Far from settling down they set off travelling together. Having experienced the art colony at Staithes, they travelled repeatedly to Holland (showing their work at joint exhibitions in London) before eventually finding their way to Cornwall. While Harold’s portraits put food on the table Laura gradually discovered her vision, moving away from her husband’s solid, studio-based technique towards a much freer style. Working outdoors, she sought to capture the world as she saw it - animated, in motion. The move to Newlyn brought light flooding into her canvases, and she was away.

Already long established as an art colony, Newlyn boasted a small but lively population of young artists, among whom Laura’s exuberant personality found full expression. There were dances and parties with friends like the Procters, and while the more conservative Newlyn residents were horrified by the artists’ free and easy ways the colony gave Laura the opportunity and licence to explore a subject forbidden to her according the conventions of the day. As a student she and her fellow women were denied the opportunity to study nude models, and it was partly in reaction to this that she painted ‘Self-Portrait’ (1913), which shows her at work painting her friend Ella Naper, who is naked. The painting was shown and admired in Newlyn, but rejected by the Royal Academy; when it was shown elsewhere in London one critic commented that it should have been better left in the studio.

Laura Knight, The Coil of Hair (Dover Museums)

Laura’s extrovert personality and interest in painting women has given rise to speculation about her sexuality. Perhaps she was attracted to women, or perhaps she simply liked painting them. It’s unlikely anyone will ever know, so in the meantime let’s consider her relationship with Harold. According to some authors he found Laura’s increasing success and relentless joie de vivre hard to handle; he’s presented as withdrawn and grumpy. According to others he was just quiet, a stable presence in Laura’s life. A man of iron principle he insisted, when called up for military service in 1916, on registering as a conscientious objector, despite the frailty of his health and the inevitable abuse he suffered as a result.

Yet Harold remained a popular and successful portrait painter, and in 1926 he was commissioned to produce a series of portraits at John Hopkins Hospital in the US city of Baltimore; as soon as he had some dollars in his pocket he paid for Laura to join him. A year later it was Laura who was enjoying success, becoming only the second woman to be elected an Associate of the Royal Academy. They continued to exhibit together, with shows at the Laing Gallery, Newcastle (1933) and the Castle Art Gallery (1934) and later in the decade became full members of the Royal Academy; the first married couple to achieve this feat. On her election, however, she became the first woman in history to sit on the Selection Committee for the RA Summer Show, and it was this kind of thing that made the news. Already a Dame of the Order of the British Empire, Laura loved playing to the gallery, yet her choice of subjects – fishermen and their families, circus people, gypsies – suggests that she was more comfortable among people who lived on the margins of conventional society. Among educated people her lack of polish perhaps made her uncomfortable.

Harold Knight died in 1961, when he and Laura had been married fifty-eight years. Neither had ever wanted to children. Instead they had embarked with youthful enthusiasm on a lifelong adventure in art, supporting one another throughout. Writing about her life, Laura recalled how in 1933 she fell at home and broke her leg. The doctor insisted she would be crippled for life but Harold disagreed and set to work on her rehabilitation, ‘giving up his time to support me, step by step, eventually giving me the courage to walk again.’

This is an excerpt from my book 'In Relation: Nine Couples who Transformed Modern British Art' (Sansom & Co), which was the catalogue for my exhibition at the RWA Bristol last year. The Knights feature in my lecture 'Lover, Teacher, Muse... or Rival?' which I happen to be giving today...

Thursday, 10 January 2019

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50 50: Barbara Jones

Barbara Jones, The Resort, 1950
A time traveller visiting mid-20th-century Britain would discover a painted world. Restaurants, department stores, schools and hospitals were filled with murals painted by the best artists of the day. Aside from a few celebrated examples (think Rex Whistler at Tate Britain) the most of these have disappeared, and in many cases not even a photograph survives. This is true of the numerous murals painted by Barbara Jones, but occasionally we find a treasure that has escaped the general destruction, whether a mural itself or a study, as this seems to be. The painting of The Resort may have been related to Jones’s preparations for the Festival of Britain in 1951, but almost seventy years later it stands by itself as a work of great individuality and charm. Jones was taught by Eric Ravilious, and there are hints here of her teacher’s preoccupations with nautical design, improbably delicate structures and idiosyncratic wheeled vehicles. Her imaginative world has its own style, however, and its own distinctive palette. As so often with Jones we see perspective and scale treated with a child-like playfulness, but it is clear that a sophisticated visual intelligence is at work. There’s a constant back and forth of dark against light, light against dark, and a beguiling clarity of vision. We sense that the scene, though in no sense realistic, is real, and we share the curiosity and awe of the children admiring the deep sea diver as the ice cream seller looks on.

I wrote this for the exhibition catalogue 'Fifty Works by Fifty British Women Artists, 1900-1950' (ed Sacha Llewellyn). The exhibition runs until March at The Mercers' Company, London EC2R 8AB. Info here

Thursday, 3 January 2019

A Dance to the Music of Time

Nicolas Poussin, A Dance to the Music of Time, c1635, Wallace Collection
For a long time I've been meaning to re-read Anthony Powell's waltz through the 20th century, and now I have the perfect excuse. I mean what better way can there be to avoid real life for the next few months than by immersing oneself in a twelve-volume series of books? Although, having said that, I will probably have a much clearer idea of the forces powering Brexit after I've finished. Halfway through book two now and loving the unhurried pace, not to mention the deliciously dry humour. A hundred pages to describe one evening, and gripping all the way...

See you on the other side!

Thursday, 11 October 2018

Gawain Again


Three years ago I began working with Clive Hicks-Jenkins and Dan Bugg on a new project: to create a set of prints devoted to 'Sir Gawain and the Green Knight'. Clive loved Simon Armitage's translation of the wily old poem, so it is exciting and rather extraordinary to see that Faber are publishing this new edition of the Armitage text, complete with Clive's illustrations.

Gawain has inspired numerous artists over the years, but none is quite like Clive. He has created his own visual language which reflects both the medieval magic of the old poem and the sophisticated play of the translation. Putting poem and images together is an inspired move by the publisher.

Definitely one for the Christmas wishlist...



Tuesday, 2 October 2018

Hokusai and Hiroshige in Bristol

Hokusai, Fine Wind Clear Morning, 1830-32
If you happen to be in Bristol this autumn I recommend a visit to the exhibition of woodblock prints by Hokusai and Hiroshige at the Bristol Museum and Art Gallery. The exhibition is in three parts, with the first group of works on display until January. As I understand it, the prints belong to the museum but generally spend their days in storage - the fate of most works on paper in our conservation-sensitive times.

They are, to quote Arthur in the radio sitcom Cabin Pressure, brilliant! I must admit that I tend to pick up books of, say, Hokusai's '36 Views of Mount Fuji', and lose interest fairly rapidly. In reproduction I think you lose the texture and subtlety of the original prints, which are wonderfully delicate. You could imagine them breaking free from their mounts and fluttering off down Park Street like exquisite insects.

Although the influence of these artists on 19th and 20th century European art has always been acknowledged (most notably perhaps by Van Gogh), I'm not sure we quite appreciate how great that influence was. But then Hokusai and his followers also owed a debt to Western art, particularly Dutch painting and print-making, which found its way into Japanese culture during the 17th and 18th centuries via the Dutch trading post at Dejima, Nagasaki.

Masters of Japanese Prints: Hokusai and Hiroshige Landscapes is at the Bristol Museum and Art Gallery until January.

Friday, 8 June 2018

Artist Couples Exhibition comes to Bristol!


© 1961 estate of Vanessa Bell, courtesy Henrietta Garnett. Photo credit: RWA (Royal West of England Academy)

For the past three years I've been working with director Alison Bevan and the curatorial staff at the Royal West of England Academy, putting together an unusual kind of exhibition. There's a clue in the title - In Relation: Nine Couples who Transformed Modern British Art

The exhibition brings together some of the most significant artists and designers who worked in C20 Britain, but what really matters here is that we're looking at the subject in a new way. We know that artists are influenced by their illustrious predecessors and by new ideas, but what happens when two artists share their everyday life together? How is the work and career of each one affected by the other?

Because these relationships are often undocumented - you don't write letters to someone you live with - it's easy to overlook them, yet it is clear that in some cases the course of British art in the 20th century was significantly influenced by the romantic entanglements of these artists. This exhibition gives people a chance to look at pictures by, say, Duncan Grant and Vanessa Bell, and think about the similarities and differences.

Fans of Eric Ravilious will enjoy 'Painted Dresser', a watercolour that has never been shown publicly before, and there's also an opportunity to view rarely seen work by his wife Tirzah Garwood. There are some cracking loans from Tate and the National Portrait Gallery, including a lovely portrait of Vanessa Bell by Duncan Grant and the gorgeous double portrait '1933 St Remy' by Ben Nicholson. Two beautiful Barbara Hepworth sculptures, rare early works by Mary Fedden and even a woman's wedding suit made from block-printed fabric by celebrated 1930s designers Barron and Larcher.

The full list of artists is as follows:

Ben Nicholson and Barbara Hepworth; Laura and Harold Knight; Dod and Ernest Procter; Eric Ravilious and Tirzah Garwood; Robert MacBryde and Robert Colquhoun; Rose and Roger Hilton; Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant, Mary Fedden and Julian Trevelyan; Phyllis Barron and Dorothy Larcher.

We're hanging next week and the exhibition opens on June 16. If you can't make it or you'd like a souvenier, there's a concise but beautifully produced catalogue. So why not come to Bristol and enjoy a day out in our wonderful city...

A Walk Through Bawden's World

Saturday, 12 May 2018

Edward Bawden at the All Saints Arts Festival

Edward Bawden, The Showboat at Baghdad, 1944
Quick diary date... on 25 May I'm giving my lecture 'Edward Bawden: Artist & Adventurer' at the inaugural All Saints Festival in Maldon, Essex. Is that where the sea salt comes from? I expect I'll find out. Anyway, if you're in the area and want to come along you will just have time to whizz to Dulwich Picture Gallery and see the Bawden exhibition (opens 23 May) beforehand. Or you could go along in a more leisurely manner afterwards...

Other Bawden-related events in the Upcoming Lectures over here >>>>